Everyday Black women like my mother inspired me to fight not just for myself, but for Black people everywhere
I used to love Black History Month when I was younger and naive. I thought the Jim Crow America my parents experienced was long gone. All the famous beloved Southern Black history makers would be pulled out, dusted off, and paraded every February to prove to little Black children that we could be anything we wanted to be. The bad-bad was over. Segregation was over, and times would be better for us. Time would eventually reveal that nothing was further from the truth. As I was studying Black history, my mother was making Black history. We didn’t have the best relationship, but I gleaned a lot from her in the short time we were together under the same roof.
When I think about Black History Month, I think of one of my favorite quotes from Coretta Scott King: “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” And it’s true. Black history is about struggle and fighting for freedom. Black people can never give up fighting for their dignity, their space, and their place in a society that seeks to erase them.
Black History Month reminds me of how often the world tends to minimize key roles Black women have played in our never-ending marches toward freedom and equity.
Freedom ain’t free. It’s never been free, and it never will be. The price of freedom is time, blood, sweat, tears, heartaches, setups, setbacks, and money, and after all that, sometimes we’re able to eke out a tiny bit of freedom.
To me, Black History Month is about viewing the results of heavyweight fights. All of the fights weren’t won, but the fights were recorded. I see the entire month of February as a time to focus on our wins and the numerous losses of Black people in our fight for equity. Black History Month is a time to reflect on what our elders and ancestors got right, what they got wrong, and what could’ve been done a little better or differently. Black History Month shows taught me that anyone can fight, but it’s better to fight together.
Through my mother, I learned that anyone can accidentally become Black history. My mom showed me how to fight against workplace racism and White supremacy when I was a kid in middle school. I learned early, like most Black kids do, how our parents, like their parents and their parents’ parents, must fight to be treated fairly.
When I was young, my mom’s first job was a city water clerk in Columbia, South Carolina, a state known for racial discrimination and its love of the Confederacy. My mom’s boss, a White male, consistently passed over Black employees with more seniority and experience for promotions in favor of White candidates. She’d worked for years for the city as a clerk and along with other Black women. They all were tired of being passed over, but my mom decided to hire an attorney to look at her legal options. My mom’s attorney advised her that she would need proof, which took a few years for her to collect.
My mom meticulously documented training new White employees to do her job, only for them to be promoted. After she had enough evidence of her boss’s racial discrimination, she was able to file a legitimate suit. The entire process of being used, discriminated against, humiliated, and not recognized for her efforts was degrading. My mom came home many days frustrated and angry. The inhumanity of being forced to sit in inequity was hard to listen to. She taught us to fight and speak up for ourselves. My mom also showed me the other side of fighting racism. It’s the part of Black History Month no one talks about: the stress.
Fighting White supremacy wears you down and changes us. Black women often go through the struggle alone. There was no church family. My mom had no support from her own family. She didn’t have a girlfriend pod pouring into her when she was low on fuel. It was just us, and it was hard.
My mom wasn’t just fighting for herself. She was fighting for us, too, modeling the same fighting spirit that so many of our ancestors had before her. Black history is Black women fighting White supremacy, even when we gotta go it alone.
Black history is about fighting.
Like so many other Black people who have put their lives on the line for Black revolutions and civil rights for Black people, mom mom learned that it’s a lonely journey. People abandoned her. At the time, she had a White friend and co-worker she was really close to. They both were single mothers. My mom’s White friend had a biracial daughter who was a few years younger than me. They took turns babysitting each other’s kids; we even spent the night at each others’ homes. After my mom started her lawsuit, however, her White friend pulled away. Like most White people, they bail when the going gets tough for us. That’s was my first up-close and personal lesson on the privilege and apathy of White women. My mom and her friend eventually stopped talking after my mom’s friend was promoted by their White supervisor for unfriending her.
Her White friend also shared details of my mom’s lawsuit with her boss, who happened to be the future defendant in her racial discrimination case. My mom never had any White friends again. She found her safety and strength in Black people.
I learned that standing up for yourself against White supremacy is hard. People will abandon you. Folks are afraid of “the man,” let alone sticking it to him. Even your extended family can be unsupportive when loved ones fight White supremacy.
My mom was devastated about her White friend. The betrayal and violation stung for a long time. It’s where I learned that White people check into and out of our lives. If you’re going to be in any revolution for Black people, you’ll need to understand this. It’s not personal—it’s just White folks’ business.
Black history is about struggle.
My mom won her case. She got justice for herself, but the costs were high. She lost money, friends, peace, and years from her life. Those things you can’t get back. Her $500,000 landmark settlement was huge, and it was the first time anyone had successfully sued the city and won. My mother made history, but nothing really changed. Her employer couldn’t fire her during the lawsuit, because it would’ve led to another lawsuit, so my mom had to work for years until her day in court. After she won her case, she quit her job and took about two years off to gather herself before moving on to her next job, working in the state government.
My mom’s justice was getting the money she’d been cheated out of for years and being compensated for the pain, suffering, and mental anguish from the microaggressions and workplace racial discrimination.
All the White people at her new job were afraid of my mom after her successful lawsuit, and they were told to do what they could to avoid her. She was legendary in the city; no one wanted the doll’s smoke. Avoidance is another downside of racial discrimination. White folks don’t want to deal with you, because they are afraid they’ll cross the line and be sued. My mom went to work and came home. Work was a means to an end after that. She went on to retire, but she never took racist shit in her workplace again.
Our ancestors taught my mom to fight, even when justice is fleeting. My mom taught me to fight. Our ancestors fighting made it possible for my mom to have a day in court — and win. Justice is rare for us. I never realized how rare until I got older and began living and working in America.
I now realize just how difficult it is to get justice for racial discrimination in America. The burden of proof is high, and often Black people can’t afford to prove it. We gotta work so we can keep our heads above water. I’m thankful I was able to see my mom get her justice. Now I gotta get mine.
My family is Black history. Black history to us means continuing the fight. My mom’s mental illness keeps her from continuing our fight against racial discrimination and White supremacy, so I must.
The city my mom once worked and lived in is still racist. The state is still racist. Back in the 1980s, my mom’s financial settlement was one of the largest ever awarded in a racial discrimination case in the state. The money wasn’t nearly enough to pay for the grief she received for wanting equal opportunity and fair treatment. White people paid my mom off and remained racist. Her old boss got to keep his job—he was just shuffled off to a different city department. He still got to be a supervisor.
As we eventually learn, racism pays well, and there is rarely any punishment for engaging in it, which is why it’s so difficult for Black people to be free of it. It’s one of the reasons I believe we must appreciate the stories and savor the wins collectively. When one Black person perseveres, we all win. If one person gets justice, we feel as if we all are getting justice.
Black History Month is seeing the fruits of our labor, pain, suffering, and deaths. Black History Month is about our fair-weather, fleeting friend justice.
Her story became my story
I was living with Black history in my house most of my childhood and didn’t know it. Now that I’m older, I appreciate living through that terrible time with my mom. Watching my mom not quitting, writing letters, making phone calls, crying, visiting politicians, coming home depressed, finding and trusting an attorney to try her case, and challenging racists in the workplace most of her life showed me that I didn’t have to take shit from racists.
Her story became my story.
My mom taught me how to stand up for myself. She made sure I knew my past so I was able to fight for my future. Black women wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for fighting Black women of the past and our rebellious martyrs of the Black liberation movement. Black women have done amazing things. I want to be in the number.
We as Black women cannot sit around and reminisce about the beauty and brutality of the civil rights era, Harriet Tubman, Ms. Jane Pittman, Coretta Scott King, and Fannie Lou Hamer. We must also make our own Black history moments.
My mother was a small woman, but she was powerful. She had only a high school education, but she was a smart woman. You don’t need a college degree or bunches of letters behind your name to fight injustice and racial discrimination. Making your own Black history doesn’t require you to speak good English, have fine clothes, or be rich or well-connected. None of those things are necessary to fight for Black people.
You just need to be tired of racism and care about us.
Black women everywhere have left lots of nuggets for us to fight this old fight, but so did Black women in our own families. Black history is filled with plenty of her stories right under our noses. Don’t discount your own treasures for someone else’s. As I look across the nation at what’s happening, I can’t help but be thankful for the Black women who prepped me for this moment in time we’re living through—mainly my mom. Her stories of dealing with inequality left a lasting impression on my life.
While Black herstories are also my stories, their fights aren’t mine to claim. I’m just a beneficiary of the fight. I know I gotta go out and fight my own fights. I must make my own Black history, and I’m about that life. It’s my generation’s time to win, so let’s get it.
“Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”
Black herstory is my story, and my time to blaze my own trail is now.
Marley K., 2021